I am sitting in the living room with my elderly mother-in-law, Mother Mary. We are watching television. Mother Mary holds the remote.

The television is enormous. I am talking about a TV that’s bigger than a king-size mattress mounted to the wall. The volume is cranked up so loud that bits of ceiling plaster are falling into my beer.

My wife is away tonight, and she has left me alone with Mother Mary. We are watching TV. Mother Mary is flipping channels.

You’d like Mother Mary. She is white-haired, with a voice like Scarlett O’Hara. She sits in her recliner, and we are eating pizza delivery.

She flips past all the major networks. She pauses on HGTV for a little while, but nothing appeals to her. She scrolls past all her favorites: TLC, TBS, USA, TNT, Home Shopping Network, Univision.

She finally lands on the Discovery Channel. The show is entitled “Naked and Afraid.”

On the screen are two forty-somethings. Male and female. They hike through the wilderness trying to survive. And they are both—how do

I put this?—buck naked.

The gist of the show is simple and realistic. Two people with desk jobs suddenly find themselves wandering through the woods, fighting insurmountable odds, harsh weather, sleep deprivation, predators, and multiple commercial breaks. And they do it without wearing any pants.

The important thing to remember here is that these are not actors, and they are actually naked. Their primary body parts are blurred by special camera effects, but their secondary body parts are in clear focus.

For example: There is a man on the screen right now. He is bending over to get a drink from the river. And I see London, I see France.

“Oh my word,” remarks Mother Mary. “I see his little hiney.”

I cover my eyes. “Mother Mary, would you like another piece of pizza?”

“Would you JUST look at that?”

“How about something from…


I am a teacher. I’ve been teaching for almost 25 years. It was my dream job. I’ve always loved it and now I don’t.

Inept administration, difficult students, priority-confused parents, and lack of support with increased expectations have worn me down. Now all I think about is retirement.

Kids are my life. Their smiles, wit, hugs, those “aha moments” they have… Their wonder. It is what I live for. How do I find my spark again?



Boy howdy. I’m the wrong guy to ask. Educators are persons who have answered the highest calling, whereas I am a guy who hasn’t emptied the dishwasher since Labor Day.

Besides, I’m in the same boat you’re in. I too have lost my spark.

Have you ever seen the 1953 Western “Shane” starring Alan Ladd? Remember the iconic closing scene wherein the hero (Shane) rides away while Little Joey is begging him to stay?

To freshen your memory, here’s a replay of that movie ending:

The horse stables. Nighttime. Shane saddles his mare. Little Joey is crying, asking Shane not to

leave. Shane is Joey’s boyhood idol.

Shane, clad in a spectacular buckskin fringe jacket, tells the kid he’s leaving for good.

“Joey… You go home to your mother and your father, and grow up to be strong and straight.”

The boy sniffles. “Shane...”

Music swells for a dramatic goodbye while Shane steps into the stirrups and rides away into the Wyoming Territory.

The boy chases Shane, pleading with the enigmatic gunslinger not to leave. But Shane ignores the boy and rides off.

The final line of the movie comes from the weeping child who screams: “Shane! Shane, come back!”

That’s exactly what my year has been like.

Old Me climbed onto his horse and hightailed it into the Bighorns, while Current Me chased him and shouted, “Sean! Sean! Come back!”

Before COVID, I had a spark…

My mother once told me that the most beautiful things in life are often the things that go unnoticed. And I’ve been thinking a lot about that.

I believe she’s right. After all, I’ve never known Mama to be wrong.

Mama was right when she told me to always wear clean undies. She was right when she told me to never eat yellow snow. I believe she was right about nearly everything.

As it happens, this morning I read about a few beautifully unnoticed things. These items came to me in the form of emails.

I receive a lot of emails. Many of these messages come from people I’ve never met, who live in places I’ve never been. These perfect strangers write to me about small events that took place; microscopic happenstances that go unseen by society.

Like the woman from Michigan who told me about a young single father who lives in her building.

The father needed a ride to work because his car died and he couldn’t afford a cab. His jobsite was located nine miles away. So

he walked.

This became a routine. The man arose each morning and hoofed nine miles. Then he walked home after work.

He was walking 45-plus miles every week. Until last week.

Last week an older woman who drives a truck for a courier service had been noticing this man each morning. She pulled over and offered him a ride.

The man said no he’d be fine, and he kept walking. But the lady insisted, she did everything short of begging him to get in.

He got in. When she dropped him at work she asked, “What time you get off, hon?”

He told her.

She smiled. “I’ll be waiting right here to take you home.”

She’s been giving him rides all week. No charge.

I received another message from an elderly man in northern California who said he was out…

My truck is parked on the bay. I am watching a Florida Panhandle sunset while sharing a gas-station burrito with my dog who has not mastered sharing.

I’ve been out of town for a few days. I was on my way home when I pulled over here.

Home. One of my favorite words. If there’s anything more thrilling than coming home it’s probably frowned upon by Sunday school teachers.

Music plays through my open windows. Classical music. In my truck I only play classical. Usually, I select classic masterpieces from the repertoires of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, or Spade Cooley.

Such music goes well with Floridian sunsets.

You’d be surprised how few people are familiar with the finer points of the Panhandle region. A lot of Americans get confused about our area and assume we’re similar to mainstream Florida. These assumptions are wrong.

We’re nothing like Tampa. Nothing like Orlando. My front door is located closer to Houston than Miami. We don’t dress like Jimmy Buffet, and I don’t own mouse ears.

West Florida is

its own thing. Our region was settled long before the rest of our tourist-centric state, and it’s considerably more historic than big cities with theme parks.

In fact, for years this area never had much in the way of tourist amusement unless you counted the Miracle Strip Amusement Park in Bay County, where I once took Anna Lee Wilson on date.

Anna Lee puked all over me while riding the Loop-O-Plane ride. She had eaten nachos that night. I lost interest in nachos after that.

Our county is mostly rural. Here we have rich people and poor folks alike.

In the affluent zones, you have Land Rovers, Teslas, and hopped-up golf carts that cost more than Cadillacs. But on my street, most homes have double axles, high mileage, and foam-deer targets in front yards.

We are not fancy. We are painfully downhome. I…

My wife and I are going out to dinner tonight. I am waiting for her to get ready. She is in the bathroom, standing before a mirror, pinching her tummy. She asks if I think she is fat.

“No,” I say.

She frowns. “You sure?”


“Well, I feel fat.” She pinches a new region. “This doesn’t look fat to you?”

“Still no.”

She readjusts. “What about from this angle?”


“How about when I turn around?”

“Are you kidding?”

“How about when I stand like this and hold my neck like this?”

“You look extremely uncomfortable.”

I can feel her getting ready to say it. And she most certainly does. “But… I feel so fat.”

My whole life has been spent in the company of women. When my father died, he left me in a house of estrogen. I was raised by a village of females. And in my life I have learned one basic thing about the opposite gender.

Many women think they are fat.

And they are always wrong about this, no matter what their size. Because the word

“fat” is a disgraceful term, unless it’s being used to describe a ribeye. When applied to humans, this word is a synonym for “disgusting.” And I refuse to believe any human is disgusting.

Although it is almost impossible not to feel fat in today’s world of airbrushed spokes-models. Every printed advertisement and beer commercial tells us we are fat.

But it wasn’t always like this. Things were different 75 years ago. You never heard anyone saying Marilyn Monroe needed to try keto.

No. People weren’t obsessed with being skinny. Consequently, American families ate more bacon. And according to the wise old timers who came before us: The family that eats bacon together, stays together.

But things have changed. By today’s impossible standards Marilyn Monroe would be considered a Clydesdale. Barbara Eden, a Holstein. Ginger and Mary Ann would…

Virginia. Late afternoon. A nice hotel near an airport.

The soldier carried his heavy bag over a shoulder. He wore his usual ACU jacket, patrol cap, and a reverse flag patch on his shoulder. He stepped off the hotel elevator onto the second floor, removed his cap to reveal a high and tight cut.

He wandered down the long hotel corridor, his tactical boots making dull thuds on the carpet.

Then he double checked the slip of paper in his hand which read: “Room 233.”

He repeated the room number to himself, noting the numbers on the passing doors.

It had been a long six months. He’d been on temporary duty assignment, away from his wife and daughters; away from everything. It gets lonely overseas.

He just arrived on U.S. soil this morning. Then he took two flights to get here. His family was supposed to be meeting him at the airport, but his plane came in a few hours early. So he thought he’d come here and surprise them.

He found the room. The number on the

door was 233.

He double- and triple-checked to make sure it was the right room. The last thing you want after being absent from your family for the better part of a year is to surprise the wrong family.

The military man took a deep breath. He was feeling his age today. He’s not old, but he’s got high mileage.

He knocked on the door.

He waited.

His heart was pounding in his throat. But nothing happened. So he knocked again. But he got the same results. Bupkis.

He leaned against the wall and scratched his buzzed head. Where could they be?

That is when he heard the elevator ding behind him. Then he heard voices down the hall.

He knew those voices.

They were decidedly female voices, the same ones he often hears in his sleep. He closed his eyes and…

This is Michael’s story. And it begins in the middle of the night, in the hinterlands of suburban North Carolina.

Michael and his musician friends are hiking through a dark neighborhood, lugging two violins, a viola, a cello, four folding stools, collapsible music stands, and backpacks. And its chilly.

“Are we almost there?” says the cellist. “My feet hurt.”

“Keep your voice down,” says Michael, swinging his violin case at his side. “We’re almost there.”

“I don’t understand why we had to park so far away.”

“Keep your voice down. Do you realize what time it is?”

The cellist is in poor spirits. He is hauling a massive hunk of spruce-and-maple torture otherwise known as a cello. He adjusts the three-quarter-ton case. “I shoulda been a flute player.”

Meet the string quartet. Four average college kids from your average American community college. They’ve been playing chamber music together for three years.

Have you ever listened to a string quartet? Or better yet: Have you ever been awakened by a quartet playing Haydn on your front lawn at 1 A.M.? Me neither.

This was all Michael’s idea.

Michael has a severe case of lovesickness. Lovesickness, according to the dictionary, is the inability to act normally due to love. And tonight’s events are definitely not normal.

Although for 19-year-old Michael, this is more than mere fascination. He has been dating Eleana for one year and he hopes to marry her someday.

Michael and Eleana had an argument last week. And in the way of disagreements, theirs was Hiroshima. Pride got in the way. Feelings got hurt. He’s been lost without her. Eleana won’t take his calls. He tries texting, but she doesn’t answer.

Which leads us to Covert Operation Haydn.

Tonight’s makeshift string section sets up in a semicircle on Eleana’s front lawn. Michael is nervous. His hands are trembling when he opens his violin case.

Life is not like the romance…

“Otis!” says the girl working the fast-food drive-thru window. “Gimme a kiss!”

I am in my truck, buying hamburgers. The drive-up cashier’s name is Shawnda. She is a notorious Otis lover.

Otis (alleged Labrador) crawls over the steering wheel to greet Shawnda, and his prodigious canine butt is wagging in my face. His tail is swinging like a Louisville Slugger. I think I’m going to have a black eye.

Shawnda scruffs his hair. “Can I give him some French fries?”

“Why not. He’s a growing boy.”

She gives him a single handful and says, “Gosh, I really want a dog of my own.”

I massage my sore eye. “Take mine, please.”

“You think I should finally break down and get a dog?”

I know from previous conversations that Shawnda lives with her elderly grandmother. Also, Shawnda works part-time while taking college classes.

Sadly, I am unable to answer her question because there is a pool-noodle-sized canine tail whacking me in the face, knocking off my hat.

So I change tacks. “How’s your granny doing?”

“Oh…” She sighs. “One day at a time.”

Shawnda is her grandmother’s

primary caregiver. Shawnda is the one who cuts the grass, pays the bills, cooks, cleans. Hers is not a simple life.

But I see a different side of the cheerful young woman whenever Otis is around. She leans in for the full-face lick. “I love you, Otis.”

Before we leave, Otis gives Shawnda a grandiose goodbye by licking every nanometer of her hands. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure this is frowned upon in the fast-food franchise employee manual.

We pay for our food and off we go. Shawnda continues to wave farewell in my rear view.

I turn to Otis. “You have a new girlfriend.”

He says nothing.

“Hey, I get it. She’s sweet. Just promise me you won’t rush into anything.”

Otis blinks.

“So, where do you wanna eat today?”


Just before midnight. Somewhere on the Texas prairie. A 20-year-old named Mark was driving on a two-lane highway on his way home.

You have to be careful when driving on an empty prairie. It’s easy to develop “prairie foot.” On a flat landscape, without landmarks, your foot tends to get heavy on the gas pedal. It’s not hard to travel upwards of 200 miles per hour by accident.

Mark saw flashing hazards ahead. A brokedown truck with a horse trailer attached. He pumped his brakes and pulled over. And in the rural tradition of all who wear roper boots, he was ready to help.

“Need a hand?”

A young woman slid from beneath the truck chassis. She had grease smudges on her face. She was holding a scissor jack. And she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.

Mark felt his breath get trapped in his throat.

She smiled. “Sorry. No speak’a the Inglés too good.”

Her truck had a flat tire. In her passenger seat was a silent elderly woman. The girl had been under the

vehicle looking for the jackpoint on the old Silverado, which can be dangerous business for the uninitiated.

“Allow me,” Mark said, already on the pavement.

It turned out to be a bigger problem than he’d expected. Her spare tire was shot, worn to the canvas. There was no way she was getting home on that thing.

Mark attached the horse trailer to his own truck and told her he’d take them home. But where did she live? Her jumbled English made it impossible to understand her directions.

So the girl drew him a map. And since there was no paper in Mark’s truck to write upon, she used a Sharpie to draw the route on Mark’s hand.

He presented her his hand, which was trembling when she wrote upon it.

It was 2 A.M. when he reached her aunt’s house. He led…

Dear Anonymous,

You wrote to me from the ICU waiting room at 1:37 A.M. this morning. In your email you told me about your daughter, fighting to stay alive. You told me that you were a mess. You said you needed a smile.

Then you finished by asking a simple question. You asked what I believe Hope is.

And you spelled it with a capital H.

Normally I wouldn’t answer a question like this because, I think we can all agree, I ain’t a very smart guy. In fact, I’m a putz. But you seemed desperate. So if my mediocre, halfcocked words can give you a few moments of calm, then, well...

Words you shall have.

So Hope. Capital H. I submit that, for this column, we pretend Hope is not merely a four-letter word or a positive feeling. Let’s make Hope tangible; a three-dimensional object. That way we can hold it. Touch it.

Let’s say that Hope (capital H) is actually a one-pound shaker of arts-and-craft glitter.

Have you ever fooled around with glitter? It’s messy stuff. Glitter is a clean

freak’s nightmare. Any second-grade teacher will tell you that glitter is a communicable disease.

Yesterday, for instance, my wife visited my cousin’s kid’s playroom where unsupervised children were playing with illegal quantities of glitter. Their sparkly hands touched my wife, who in turn touched me. And that was all it took.

Currently, there are stubborn pieces of glitter in my teeth, on my keyboard, and in my eye sockets. There will be glitter in my casket.

Because you can’t end glitter. You can’t fight it. You can’t eradicate it. Try washing your hands; glitter will laugh at you.

Hope is like glitter. It doesn’t take much. And it really hangs on.

Although I also believe Hope is fuel, like gasoline. To explain what I mean let’s use a hypothetical anecdote.

First, for this illustration, let’s pretend you have…